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Ski helmets: Choosing safety over fashion

Cory Fisher

Paul Manoukian could tell by the looks he was getting that some people thought he was a geek.

With his shiny new ski helmet firmly strapped under his chin, even his wife joked about being too embarrassed to accompany him on a chair lift. Manoukian was easy to spot – at the time, he was the only Heavenly Ski Resort skier around with giant, bulbous head wear.

On that day – roughly a year ago – Manoukian and several friends decided to ski Mott’s Canyon, a series of steep, narrow and extremely difficult chutes at the southeast corner of Heavenly.



Once the small party reached the top of the run, however, they realized that a daunting layer of ice had formed on the slopes, making their descent an especially challenging one.

Manoukian skied off a cornice and briefly stopped, digging his edges in, before continuing on down the steep slope.



“My biggest mistake was to glance over my shoulder,” he said. “I caught a downhill edge and fell – I wasn’t hot-dogging, I was just standing there.”

Manoukian’s friends looked on, horrified, as he slid backward, picked up speed and began to roll down the icy chute.

“They said I looked like a 220-pound rag doll – I kept flipping up in the air because one ski wouldn’t come off,” he said. “At one point, the only voluntary thing I did was to kick that ski off. The rest of the time, it was like seeing Mott’s Canyon from the inside of a clothes dryer.”

As Manoukian gathered speed, his friends said he hit hard ice every 20 to 30 feet. A sudden slam into a large boulder launched him nearly 15 feet into the air before he continued down the sheer slope.

“My friends all thought I was going to die,” Manoukian said.

The seemingly endless tumble finally came to a violent and abrupt end when Manoukian came to rest at the base of a large pine tree, some 300 yards below.

“I lay there for a second, then wiggled my fingers and toes – the only thing that hurt was my shoulder.”

Aside from his shoulder, Manoukian walked away with nothing more than a bloody nose. The bulbous, geeky helmet he bought only the day before appeared to have saved his life.

“To this day, I still look at the gashes in my helmet that would have been in my head,” he said. “Without it, I would have at least suffered severe facial trauma, but very likely would have died.”

Manoukian would know.

As a local surgeon who specializes in the ear, nose, throat, head and neck, Manoukian has seen the tragedy of head injuries. But his personal experience has heightened his campaign to get more skiers to wear helmets.

“Wearing a helmet doesn’t give you license to be reckless,” he said. “But there’s enough scientific data out there to prove that helmets drastically reduce serious facial, head and brain injury.”

Manoukian says research has found that:

— Wearing a helmet reduces the risk of head injury by 60 to 80 percent.

— Promotions and rebates for helmet purchases can increase the wearing rate from 10 to 50 percent.

— Mandatory laws, such as with motorcycle riders, increases the wearing rate to 92 percent.

— Helmet wearing can result in significant health care savings.

Even before the skiing deaths of Sonny Bono and Michael Kennedy, local ski resorts report that helmet education within the past two years has contributed to a significant rise in sales.

Just a year after Manoukian’s accident, helmets don’t quite carry the same geeky stigma, especially among children, racers and those who can’t resist wooded areas. Manoukian hopes helmet use among skiers will soon catch on to the degree that it has with bicycle riders.

“It’s important that the increase in helmet wearing isn’t just a fear reaction related to a celebrity’s death – that they don’t end up in the closet. This needs to become common practice,” he said.

Manoukian stressed that skiers don’t need to be going fast to sustain a serious head injury, and that skiing defensively is critical when it comes to preventing mishaps.

“Now my accident is one of those things I can laugh about – rather than being something devastating to my wife and family,” he said.

Needless to say, Manoukian’s wife doesn’t tease him about his goofy helmet anymore.


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